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Novice and Intermediate rider alert: this day’s for you!

After a fantastic, if a little painful, day three, day four of the ultimate spring break mountain bike road trip promised to be yet another glorious one. We were heading south to Tucson to ride some more excellent singletrack and join the wife and father-in-law for some family time. Despite being further south, Tucson runs about 5 degrees cooler than Phoenix as a result of its slightly higher altitude, and while it’s only 5 degrees, I’ll take whatever I can get!

Travel Tip: Phoenix rush hour is tough. While the freeway system is more than adequate 90% of the time, things can get badly jammed up during the morning rush. Hopefully you can travel earlier or later, or if traveling with a buddy, use the HOV lane, which saved us probably an hour getting across town before our southward turn.

Most of the journey between Phoenix and Tucson is quite bleak both in terms of the brown and lifeless countryside and the unusually harsh effects of the economic downturn which emptied outlet malls and left casino parking lots empty. Even as you enter Tucson from the North, things still don’t look so hot (metaphorically speaking of course—it’s still quite hot in a literal sense).

Cruising through a prickly pear farm in the Sweetwater Preserve

Our first ride of the day would take place at the Sweetwater Preserve just a few miles west of the interstate. The approach to the parking lot is uninspiring and I thought I may have picked a lemon for our first Tucson ride. I had read in one of the tourist brochures that Tucson had the highest concentration of giant saguaros in the Sonoran desert. After the grandeur we had witnessed in Phoenix, I though this to be marketing hyperbole, but after just a few quick turns on this trail, the audacious claim was confirmed. The big cacti were everywhere; it was literally like a dense forest of giant saguaro! Unlike those old Road Runner cartoons, or the hills around Phoenix, where the saguaros are sparse and spread wide, these were tightly packed and went on and on in this configuration. This trail was worth the stop for the saguaros alone.

Turning into the first "saguaro forest"

The singletrack itself proved to be worth the stop as well. There’s about 10 miles of narrow and twisty in the 703 acre preserve. While not always buff, most of it is free of major obstacles and carrying some speed is an option wherever good line of sight is available. The stacked loop network allows you to customize both distance and challenge to your liking.

We hit most of the trails in the network and all were worth riding, even the isolated Black Rock Loop. In the main park, Homestead, Red Canyon and Ocotillo Hill were our favorites. Red Canyon provided the greatest technical challenge and would probably spook a novice, but it’s easily bypassed by staying on Homestead.  No worries about getting lost here either; every intersection has a good map that not only has a “you are here,” but also has an arrow showing the direction you are facing on the map.  This is the most idiot-proof signage I’ve ever seen.

Route finding is never a problem at the Sweetwater Preserve

Of course, I didn’t escape this ride without the mandatory flat, but with our first ride of the day under our belts and smiles on our faces, we went to join family for a few hours before our afternoon ride.

This is about as technical as it gets in the Sweetwater Preserve--just a few bumps on the Red Canyon Trail

Physical difficulty of our route: 2.5/5
Technical difficulty of our route: 2.5/5 (with some 3-3.5 on Red Canyon Trail)
Skibum’s Grade: 3.5/5 Stars
Miniskibum’s Grade 3/5 Stars

After lunch, we were off to the highly touted Fantasy Island trail with a detour by the Pima Air and Space Museum. I recommend this stop for any aviation buff; it’s the third largest aviation museum in the US and has an excellent group of indoor displays with interpretive plaques as well as acres of aircraft in the yard adjacent to the hangars.

Disaster strikes!
We left the camera in the hotel room, so there would be no pictures from this ride. I’d just have to see if I could poach a few from the Singletracks database. In the final analysis, if I was going to be without a camera for one ride on this trip, this would be the one. It’s one of the less scenic rides of the trip and, more importantly, this trail just screams to be ridden fast and non-stop.

Map at the trailhead (Singletracks photo by vincimus)

This trail system will excite the novice, put a big grin on the face of the intermediate, and challenge the advanced rider time-trial style. Everyone will have fun on this trail, even though there’s really nothing in the way of technical challenge, other than a couple brief, alternate lines. Adding to the fun factor is the fact that this is a bike-only, one-way trail; no need to worry about spooking hikers or horses, or running into oncoming traffic. Just get out there, turn cranks and yank and bank as fast as your legs and skills will allow!

Holy Jumping Cholla, Batman! (Singletracks photo by RoadWarrior)

Thsee trails are the flowiest, swoopiest trails I’ve ever seen. Like the cactus cup race course, there’s not a whole lot of elevation change, just a lot of swoopy singletrack on the flats with the occasional wash entry/exit. However, the trail builders made the entire circuit exceptionally fun.

Even the climbs were swoopy as they were mostly wash exits and you could carry enough speed into the wash that you could swoop right up the other side and bank into the next turn. This trail really rewards cornering skills and conservation of momentum. With the right approach, you can fly through the system while expending little energy. We rode the circuit so quickly, and without fatigue, we didn’t even have time to lose enough air to have to repump my slow-leaking tire! Had darkness not been encroaching and a dinner appointment awaiting, we’d have done another lap. This was one of those rare instances where I could have an excellent time without encountering any real technical challenge or spectacular scenery.

The "half pipe" (Singletracks photo by vincimus)

Physical difficulty of our route: 2/5
Technical difficulty of our route: 2/5
Skibum’s grade: 4/5 stars
Miniskibum’s grade: 3.5/5 stars

After our lightest day of riding, we were primed for an excellent day five to follow. Unfortunately, mechanicals would finally bring our two-a-days to a halt. In the next installment: Trouble in Tucson—bad breaks from bad brakes!

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# Comments

  • jeff

    This sounds like such a great trip. I think I need to start planning a trip to AZ…

  • RoadWarrior

    Glad to see I’m not the only one with a few MTB miles under my wheels that thinks Fantasy Island is a blast, just begging to play chicken with the pointy things.
    You drove right past another jem. Or maybe not, (really need tubeless to ride there).
    Casa Grande Mountain At juct. of I-10 and I-8

  • delphinide

    This sounds like a great place to take my wife for some confidence building. I want to check out those Saguro ‘forests’! And…I’m riding tubeless 🙂

  • mtbgreg1

    Both of those trails are already on my wishlist 🙂 can’t wait to check them out!

  • Jared13

    Definitely two great trails to hit when in Tucson.

    The signage is superb at Sweetwater and the Saguaros are something else!

    Fantasy Island is like nothing else also, so quick and so close to town! It can be a bit tough on the four-legged trail friends though. You just want to keep going and going and going. With little to no climbs or tech sections, the dogs don’t get a rest.

  • AK_Dan

    Both of these being so close in town you can see why they are very popular group ride spots. Love that Sweetwater, right now all the cacti are starting to bloom which makes keeping your eyes on the trail even more difficult.

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